Money Is an Iron: Oscar Movies, 2020
THE TWO POPES
Hollywood Anglophilia reached new heights in 2019 and The Two Popes is Exhibit A: two old Englishmen in dresses speaking in foreign accents pretending they’re popes. Because of this movie, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy didn’t get Oscar nominations for Uncut Gems and Dolemite Is My Name. That’s strange, because Sandler and Murphy are comedians who started out on Saturday Night Live, and The Two Popes would have worked better as a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
So instead of Terry Jones in a frock, Anthony Hopkins plays Benedict XVI, the ex-Nazi pope, as if he’s the doddering ghost of Rutger Hauer. Jonathan Pryce, a veteran of four Terry Gilliam films, plays Pope Francis as a warm, life-loving nebbish who seems Jewish in his self-doubt. Even so, the pair’s dynamic lacks spark. Suitably for a Netflix film, they resolve their differences by watching TV together on the couch at home before nodding off to sleep. By the final scene, these two elderly priests dance the tango, exchanging a whisper Viaggio in Italia-style, like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, bringing the weird, conservative pedophile wing of the Catholic Church together with the less weird wing that flirted with liberation theology when it was younger.
In The Two Popes we are supposed to find it significant that Benedict doesn’t know the music of the Beatles. In Jojo Rabbit we get to hear the Beatles sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German as Taika Waititi compares the Third Reich to Beatlemania in an opening montage featuring scenes from Triumph of the Will. This unasked-for pop-culture critique sets up a silly movie about friendship and acceptance—all those Nazis needed was love. Either that, or Waititi couldn’t secure the rights to “Get Back.”
Waititi plays Hitler in Jojo Rabbit, with blue eyes like Robert De Niro’s in The Irishman. Hitler, acted by Waititi below Fred Armisen-level, is here a wacky sitcom neighbor more than he is deranged or even odd. It’s just that he’s touchy about Jews. At one point Waititi-Hitler blurts out “correctamundo!” to Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), the Hitler youth who fantasizes the Fuhrer is his best friend. Hitler saying “correctamundo” is only not arbitrary here because it’s a word from a sitcom.
“Let everything happen to you” is the film’s final message, a line from Rilke, who even if he hadn’t died in 1926 probably could not have imagined a movie that is the equivalent of hugging a teddy bear with Hitler’s face on it. While Jerry Lewis killed Hitler in Which Way to the Front? and had the audacity to imagine children led to the gas chamber in his unreleased movie The Day the Clown Cried, Waititi’s Hitler is an imaginary friend, not a deadly fantasy projection come to life. “Let everything happen to you” seems like the exact wrong advice when dealing with the Nazis. Compare this to last year’s Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, a serious film told from the exact opposite point of view as Jojo Rabbit, to find an ending more in line with reality.
Jojo Rabbit combines Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson in the worst, cop-out ways. While an obscure song by Love called “Everybody’s Gotta Live” plays over a tricky parallel-tracking dolly shot that could come from an Anderson film, we are supposed to think of Anne Frank’s plight. When Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson), the one humanizing force in his life and a member of the Resistance, is hanged in public by the Nazis, Waititi mars her tragedy by focusing too long on the spectator pumps on her feet dangling in the air, an image that is supposed to be disturbing and heartbreaking, not clever and artistic. Tarantino, like Lewis, killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, and I prefer the purposefully stupid “Anybody order fried sauerkraut? Burn, you Nazi bastards!” of The 14 Fists of McCluskey in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to this mélange of other people’s styles that is cutesy, fake-subtle, emotionally manipulative, and soft on fascism.
In Sir Sam Mendes’s 1917, form and content meet in perfect harmony: the pointlessness of the film exactly mirrors the pointlessness of World War I.
Mendes has shot the entire film to look as though it were made in one continuous take, like Russian Ark was, but he has done it with computers, stitching everything together into a continuous flow of bombings, crashes, chases, carnage, fires, and death. As experiments go, it is, in addition to being pointless, also exactly as noble as the war was. Here, history is a video game in which a soldier (George MacKay) goes from level to level trying to deliver a message to Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Colonel Mustard in his prime.
I’m fairly certain that the film is pro-Brexit, but exactly how I don’t know, and after Dunkirk I don’t care. At this current level of Hollywood production, expressionistic British militarism is all the same to me and it’s worn me out, which is perhaps its intention. I do know that 1917 buries the achievement of Russian Ark the same way calling a movie 1917 tends to obscure other things that happened that year. I guess part of the pointlessness is that a lot of things happened in 1917, and here is one of them. The war was going on in the trenches. Why it was happening we understand less from 1917 than we understand why the buffalo stampeded in The Revenant.
A month before Joker came out, there was a mass shooting in Midland-Odessa, Texas. A man fired from his job drove through those cities shooting at pedestrians from his car and then from a U.S. Post Office van he hijacked. He killed seven people and wounded twenty-two others. The shooter lived alone in a metal, dirt-floor shack without electricity or plumbing, his only companion a dog. Police chased him in the postal van to the Cinergy Entertainment Permian Basin cineplex, “the largest community entertainment center in Texas,” where they shot and killed him in front of theaters showing already-forgotten movies including Don’t Let Go, Bennett’s War, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Overcomer, Angel Has Fallen, Ready or Not, Good Boys, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, The Angry Birds Movie 2, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
On the TV news show CBS This Morning, their “Lead National Correspondent” David Begnaud, wearing a dark burgundy button-down shirt the color of blood, showed up at the cineplex and said to the camera, “We are at the movie theater here in Odessa. We’re here because this is where the rampage ended. But what police don’t know, and what they may never know, is was the gunman coming here to continue his rampage?”
Joker was released in this atmosphere, in this kind of world, where after a deadly tragedy a man like Begnaud, who should know better, goes on national TV and says idiotic things at a crime scene because that’s his job. So Joker seemed to a lot of film critics, who should also know better, like it was part of the problem. Joker is about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) with a terrible life and mental health issues who loses his job and then kills people. In his case, he also goes on TV and kills a talk show host (Robert De Niro). As a Batman spin-off, it was thought that Joker could lead to a real-life mass murder like the one in Aurora, Colorado, where in 2012 a deranged, orange-haired lunatic shot and killed twelve people and wounded fifty-eight others during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Some critics said Joker should be banned to prevent that from happening again, or at least shunned, and Entertainment Weekly, which comes out monthly, was so appalled by it that they took a bold stand by refusing to give it a letter grade at the end of their review.
I dismissed these reactions, but when I went to see Joker, there was a man at the same show as me who had two large emotional support dogs with him. This man wore sunglasses throughout the entire screening, along with a tool belt that had a dozen items dangling from it, including a flashlight and bunches of Ziploc baggies, presumably for dog shit. At several points in the film he got up and walked the aisles of the theater, jangling and grunting, while the dogs, back in their seats, whined in his absence. This man’s presence had a real “Emergo” effect, like the skeleton that flew over the audience’s heads in the original House on Haunted Hill. His presence was unsettling and his random strolls added to the menace of what was on the screen. I wondered whether he was armed, so I moved to a seat closer to an exit door at the front of the theater, where I had a better chance of escaping if he opened fire.
When Joker was over, several members of the audience confronted the employees of the Cobble Hill Cinema to ask about this man’s behavior, which they explained was somewhat threatening. A young man holding a lobby broom had to answer to them. “By law, we have to let in people with emotional support animals,” he explained, “and wearing sunglasses is a personal preference, which we are not allowed to bring up to customers.” Anyway, Joker is a one-man show featuring an undirected actor and cinematography that uses the Piss Christ filter on every shot so that everything looks yellow and corroded. Its fictional 1981 New York City is haphazard but not all that different from the more real 2012 New York of Uncut Gems, if New York had a clown district as well as a diamond district. The riot scenes near the end of Joker reflect something true in society, and they brought the film out of its shell. If you see Joker, it would be best to see it in a theater with a potential psychopath for that added thrill of maybe not surviving it. Seeing it at home will be a waste of time unless you live with someone who might kill you while it’s on.
Like Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland as an emaciated exemplary sufferer. With tiny-twitchy head movements, pursed lips, little laughs and quips, and squinting, she portrays Garland in the last year of her life as doomed and drunk, a reluctant trouper not ready to go on and unwilling to accept that there is any good reason to go on except money. And unlike Phoenix, Zellweger has to sing and sound like Garland in Judy, and her fake bad dancing is better than his. Instead of being an antihero to the alienated, she has to clearly mark the line between theater kids and show people, a line that the survivors of High School Musical, Glee, Pitch Perfect, and various TV talent shows would be wise to note.
Wearing a black mink over summer outfits inappropriate to the end of the year in London, Zellweger’s Judy cycles through a variety of punk looks depending on what time of day it is in the movie. She’s Stiv Bators before her shows, wasted and smeared, Sid Vicious after them, momentarily triumphant with spiky hair, and Holly Vincent when she wakes up in the morning, still alive. Zellweger finds the tragedy of Garland’s life in odd moments—staring at a pretty slice of cake she is afraid to eat, turning the plate around.
Judy takes place in London in 1968 in winter. After films with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in England (My Week with Marilyn, 2011) and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in England (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, 2017), the “Hollywood actress in decline in Great Britain” genre officially exists. Seeing the most glamorous American women of their time shivering palely in the cold under grey skies next to stagnant little pools in damp parks is how England gets its revenge on Malibu. We learn that British fans will love these women no matter what, even after they’ve been rejected by the industry, by various husbands, and by a fickle public who has moved on to Audrey Hepburn. If we find out that Barbara Payton spent the winter in Folkestone in 1960, Jennifer Lawrence will have a comeback film.
With its trio of competing blondes at different stages in their careers, and a large group of characters actors playing other clownish Fox News personalities, Bombshell could have been a sharp combination of Fassbinder and Christopher Guest. Instead, director Jay Roach, of the Austin Powers movies (and Trumbo), stages it as a set of intergenerational realizations that lead to individual empowerment. If Roach had really wanted to empower this film’s audience, he and screenwriter Charles Randolph would have bluntly stated the salaries news anchors like Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) were paid to lie to their aging right-wing audience for so many years, and how their lying was further incentivized and rewarded with bonuses. After that had been established, the film could have had a meta ending like Little Women or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, except in this case, in one last twist, we would also learn how much money Theron and Kidman made pretending to be the deluded sellouts they were playing underneath the prosthetics.
Alas, as a Hollywood movie about TV news, Bombshell is not Tout va bien. Roach has no insight into Roger Ailes as an auteur, except to have Ailes shouting the dumbest thing certain film directors also yell to excuse their worst impulses: “It’s a visual medium!” Played by John Lithgow in a fat suit as a hunchbacked ogre with a cane, Ailes in Bombshell could have been a medieval grotesque or a repellent double-crosser like Charles Laughton in The Big Clock. By the end of the film, however, we are expected to pity this fat, limping predator. Rupert Murdoch, who discards Ailes to save his TV network, is played in turn by Malcolm McDowell, a man twelve years younger than Murdoch and a hundred years better-looking, proving a woman should have directed Bombshell. On the less debonair end of the spectrum, Richard Kind plays Rudy Giuliani in Bombshell, and that is a whole movie I’d like to see, but only if it’s directed by the Safdie Brothers.
Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, a biopic of the black freedom fighter and Civil War commander who escaped slavery on her own and then risked her life to free dozens of others, has a perfunctory quality that renders Tubman’s story a little dull. The most brutal scene in the film is one of black-on-black violence, in which a slave catcher (Omar Dorsey) beats to death a freedwoman played by Janelle Monáe. Cynthia Erivo, an award-winning English theater actress, plays Harriet, and Joe Alwyn, also English, plays her former owner. This acting arrangement implies, unfortunately, that the sick, exploitative history of the American South is classy drama for English people to play, but when it comes to Americans like Dorsey and Monáe, it’s something more basic.
In the contemporary, Ohio-to-Louisiana-set crime drama Queen & Slim that also came out last year, two British actors (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) played the African American leads, and these top-of-the-bill casting choices have become another area in which black professionals in the United States are ignored, even when African American directors tell stories about their own history or the difficulty of black lives today. There were no Americans who could have played even one of these three leading roles in Harriet or Queen & Slim? I know Samuel L. Jackson discussed this a couple of years ago, and took heat for it, but I think his criticism was valid. He pointed out that there is universal experience across the black diaspora, but that not all experience is universal. Some of it is local.
Given the severe economic disadvantages American actors face competing with British (and Canadian and Australian) actors, disadvantages that are growing with the wealth gap, this seems especially unfair when it comes to stories about historical and contemporary injustice faced by African Americans. As the Oscars nominations prove, there are fewer roles deemed award-worthy for black actors, so this Anglophilic system is more unfair to them than it is to white actors. I’m not suggesting American filmmakers should never employ Brits, but I do mean they should think through the implications of doing so in a more serious way than just choosing who’s best by the industry standards which have been imposed on them. Without access to inexpensive education and health care from early in their lives, American actors are taking a beating because our country isn’t civilized compared to the rest of the Anglophone world.
Harriet’s good intentions, the careful way it exposes how families were separated under slavery, and its acknowledgment of the mystical aspects of Tubman’s mission—all that was lost to me as I watched the last scene between Harriet and her former owner. The film just becomes Masterpiece Theatre, historical drama based on something classic. It is important to tell Harriet Tubman’s story, especially now, when former film producer Steve Mnuchin has so blithely decided Tubman doesn’t deserve her promised spot on the twenty-dollar bill, where she was supposed to replace a slave-owning president. Importing an actor to portray her, no matter how talented Erivo is, strikes the wrong note, so to speak.
I blame the casting of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind for this. That’s where this started, in a racist Hollywood epic. As moviegoers we should ask ourselves why it is that British people seem more natural to American audiences when they play Southerners, whether the characters are black or white. Why are we more comfortable with that? This aristocratic mode is preserving something ugly, through the medium of highly trained British acting, instead of interrogating our shared history so we can write it and put it on screen in new ways for the future. Maybe it’s time for a new approach, instead of treating the Antebellum South like it was invented at the Globe Theatre. We should be responsible for our own history, but we are outsourcing it and fancying it up.
Little Women takes place during the same period in American history as Harriet, and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved classic features a bunch of Irish, British, and Australian actors as the title characters—Saoirse Ronan is Jo, Emma Watson is Meg, Florence Pugh is Amy, and Eliza Scanlen is poor, doomed Beth, who dies, as she always does. Laura Dern, a pure product of Southern California, beams over them as put-upon Marmee, their weirdly nicknamed mother. Was her name pronounced “Mahmee” when Little Women was written in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1868? I think it must have been, because if there’s one thing young people from New England who move to New York to become writers like Jo does should know, it’s that the hardest r’s are the ones we leave behind.
Gerwig’s Little Women is an adaptation for a new century. She has reimagined the narrative, cutting it into large chunks and reordering them so Alcott’s story is told out of sequence. This was a gamble with a book that is familiar to readers all over the world, and it works. The film is something of a masterpiece, with long, loping scenes shot on location in Massachusetts. Even Paris is in Ipswich here. Each scene is so lovingly crafted and sincere, and everyone in this film seems so committed to getting it right. It’s the ultimate in professional cinema, a standard that other directors should look to. Gerwig has outdone contemporary Hollywood (and Masterpiece Theatre) in every respect. Each actor in Little Women shines, with Pugh and Timothée Chalamet (as Laurie) standing out, even as they revolve around Jo and then slide out of her orbit. Pugh was especially effective sitting next to Meryl Streep, who plays the girls’ rich aunt in purple makeup.
Seeing Marriage Story on the Upper West Side, its natural habitat even though the main characters live in Brooklyn, was so perfect that by the time the movie was over I felt kind of giddy. On the way out I thought to myself, “Now here is a serious film about important things, with real acting in it. So grueling, and yet ultimately so at peace with the reality of relationships.”
Unfortunately for me, seeing it at the newly reopened Paris Theater was also like going to the Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel across the street afterward and having four mai tais to celebrate, if the Trader Vic’s was still there and hadn’t been closed by Donald Trump when he bought the Plaza because he thought it was tacky. The next morning I had a post-Marriage Story hangover and I hated myself for liking it. I swore I’d never go see another movie about some bougie fools and their inconsequential divorce and their real love, which is Stephen Sondheim.
Adam Driver plays a working-class dude from Indiana who is such a genius director of downtown avant-garde theater that he has won a MacArthur. We see part of one of his plays with Scarlett Johansson in it, his wife and star. The play seems to be a cross between Anne Carson and the Wooster Group that looks like it’s from the early 2000s, the same way this couple’s Los Angeles divorce lawyers, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, seem to be from the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty. I was curious how many working-class guys from Indiana get Genius grants so I looked up the previous recipients for avant-garde theater direction. The closest I found was a Manhattan native whose father was on the Council of Foreign Relations and who has two advanced degrees from Yale.
Johansson, for her part, has to dress like one of the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and tie her ex-husband’s shoe, the same way she has to wear a Tyrolean hat and tie her son’s shoe in Jojo Rabbit. Earlier in the film, she dressed like Let’s Dance-era David Bowie. I’m not sure what this impetus to further costume the Black Widow is, but I read that the next film Noah Baumbach is writing, with Greta Gerwig, is based on Barbie, the doll. Will Barbie extract herself from her box the way Johansson escapes her marriage and finds herself a nice place in LA and wins an Emmy to put in it? As for the emotional horror of some of the breakup scenes in Marriage Story, this is also a film in which Driver has to cut his arm with a box cutter to prove the film isn’t bloodless.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Marielle Heller’s new film, like her previous one, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is set in New York in the 1990s and is also about an angry writer struggling to get by. Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) has so much integrity his editor at Esquire (Christine Lahti) is mad at him, so she sends him on an assignment they both think is beneath him: interviewing Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the host of the PBS children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Heller’s film explicitly asks the question, “Why do we write for magazines for a living?” and answers it by stating that we do it because “we get to change a broken world with our words.” It’s a nice sentiment from a very strange film, aimed at Gen X writers from bad homes who are trying not to let life make them bitter, and probably failing.
The film’s strangeness makes this convincing, and it’s what saves it from gooeyness. One of the most unexpected and evocative scenes in any film last year is in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s the scene with Lloyd and Fred eating lunch together in a Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh, where Fred demands a moment of silence that spreads across the dining room and out into the world. Things like that are delicate and hard to make work, as are two other important elements in this film. One is the mix of models from Rogers’s TV set with real life. The other is Tom Hanks. I am starting to really enjoy late-period Hanks, and this film states right up front that it is Hanks’s sometimes otherworldly weirdness that saves him as actor, and then goes on to imply it can save all of us. Hanks-as-Rogers can talk to his puppets like they are real people, sing his simple songs about liking you, and ask grownups disarming questions: “When did you become angry? Did something happen?”
All this comes in a broken world where publishing is so decrepit and people are so damaged by their smartphones that Heller felt she had to include an old industrial film about how magazines are made. Chris Cooper is in this movie as Lloyd’s drunk father, who sings “Something Stupid” at a wedding and starts a fight. Cooper was in Little Women as the kindly, rich neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and part of the reason I liked this film better than that one is because Cooper gets to do more here, and also because Jody Lee Lipes’s hard-edge cinematography impressed me more than the cinematography in Little Women, which edged right up to the line of the too-fancy and peered over.
FORD V FERRARI
So many of these films are about fatherlessness. Either fathers are absent from them, or, if they are present, are terrible, active forces that ruin lives. Ford v Ferrari is different in that it shows the way a father can be lost to a dangerous profession—a slow but sudden process in a job that’s all about speed. This Spielbergizes the film by concentrating too much attention on Ken Miles’s (Christian Bale’s) son, Peter (Noah Jupe), and reducing his sexy wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), to motherhood when all we want is cars, machinery, more speed. In Red Line 7000 (1965), Howard Hawks customized his characters to be without those kinds of bonds. Mangold, whose way with actors is so sure, seeks to reinstall cinematic values into mainstream factory production. He has ended up making an auto racing film far more clean-cut than Hawks’s.
As with magazines in the Mister Rogers movie, so with cars in Ford v Ferrari. Objects from another era now becoming passé, their value must be restated for the new audiences of a digital world. Mangold’s film is about how “the machine becomes weightless” and “everything fades” at 7000 RPMs, the point at which the machinery is working at top capacity. This metaphor for the cinema, about “a body moving through space and time” requires explanation because digital technology erases all that—weightlessness and other forms of non-being are built in.
So Ford v Ferrari, set around the same time as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, coincidentally features some of the same things as Tarantino’s film—a fight with canned food, a hero who lives in a trailer, lots of aimless driving, competition from an Italian industry that is doing it better than the inventors of the form. The central relationship here, between two men as in certain Hawks films, is the same as in Tarantino’s movie. Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby employs and relies on Bale’s Ken Miles to do dangerous work he can’t do himself.
Since Mangold lives on the humane side of the Hawksian Fallacy, Ford v Ferrari doesn’t go as far as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Tarantino pushes Hawks’s cold, brutal side into new areas, exposing acting as a non-dangerous profession, a series of poses against the inner turmoil of obsolescence. Ford v Ferrari’s meta-cinematic qualities remain buried, the men are not Hollywood bozos, and the whole enterprise can be enjoyed on a basic level, even, or perhaps especially, the part where Tracy Letts’s blustery Henry Ford II explains that James Bond is a degenerate.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Ford v Ferrari sticks to the facts: Ken Miles died in a car crash. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a shaggy dog story wrapped in a fairytale, saves people who were killed and kills people who are still alive. One person it does not kill is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), stuntman for cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Instead, Booth is wheeled out to an ambulance, into another life, one where he no longer works for Dalton. As at the end of Hawks’s Red River, we do not want to see either of the film’s main characters die, anymore than we want to see Sharon Tate and her friends killed by the Manson Family.
Dalton is given his moment of heroism in the film when he torches one of the Mansons (Mikey Madison) with a flamethrower he conveniently has in his poolside cabana, implicitly comparing the Mansons to the Nazis it was used against in one of Dalton’s films. Tarantino respects the Chekhovian rule that if you show a flamethrower earlier in the movie, you have to use it later. This weapon had appeared as a prop in a film within the film, where it was established as real—as real as anything else here. Similarly, when Dalton imagines himself into The Great Escape, replacing Steve McQueen, we see this on-screen. Tarantino digitally grafts DiCaprio into a role Dalton never played. We then cut to Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in a movie theater seeing the real Tate on-screen in The Wrecking Crew. Dalton/DiCaprio ends up in a film he wasn’t in, but Tate/Robbie does not appear in place of the real Tate in a film Tate was really in.
The way the film positions the Manson Family as real and threatening, more real than Hollywood, is turned around by the end. The face of evil is crushed by a dog food can. Tarantino changes the Mansons from encrustations of Hollywood who inhabit abandoned sets into cartoon characters, like people in a Frank Tashlin movie. This shock ending offended older critics, who revealed themselves as wed to the precious 1960s narratives they think they own. But as we already learned, in a movie, you can kill Hitler. We know it’s harder in real life. We know what happened to Sharon Tate.
The real enemy of such critics is not Tarantino but the passage of time, just as the future, in the form of the eight-year-old actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), at first seems like a tiny nemesis for Dalton, who will render him one more humiliation. Studious, serious, worshipping Disney, young Trudi represents the future of the movies and of American culture. She helps Dalton get himself together after an eight-whiskey-sour night, and if he throws her to the floor with a little too much force in their scene together, so what? She’s wearing pads, of course, and taking falls is part of acting. If the Trudi Frasers of the world will someday replace the Rick Daltons, for now at least they know they’re both in the same game.
A film about an officious, unlikable oaf (Paul Walter Hauser) who is accused of being the perpetrator of a deadly bombing is not the stuff of Hollywood success any more than the story-actor combo in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris was in 2018. Eastwood, of late, has become interested in real-life disaster and terrorism. Richard Jewell combines his 2016 film Sully, which was about the 2009 U.S. Airways landing on the Hudson River and forefronted Tom Hanks in a courtroom drama with minute repetitiveness, with The 15:17 to Paris, in which the young men who stopped a terrorist on a train in France played themselves. Hauser combines the quiet-awkward star-power performance of Hanks with the unquiet awkward naturalism of having real people act in a Hollywood movie. Hauser does not look like a lead actor, he closely resembles the real Jewell, and he gives an unsettling performance that exists in an obscure area where busy-bodying and stolidity meet the worship of law and order.
“A little power can turn a person into a monster,” Jewell’s lawyer (Sam Rockwell) tells him early in the film. This is Eastwood’s theme. He drives it home by having Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde represent law enforcement and the news media. These good-looking, TV-ish actors play an FBI agent and a newspaper reporter soullessly, as boring hacks unconcerned with truth and justice because they are preoccupied with success and fame, and always think they’re right. In a time when, because of Trump, we are all supposed to have a newfound love for our protectors in the intelligence agencies and the media, Eastwood has decided to show them in the most perfunctory way possible, as handsome zeroes.
While Hamm and Wilde meet in bars and carry on a boring affair during which they barely look at each other, Jewell’s mother (Kathy Bates) sits at home trying to watch movies like Sands of Iwo Jima while she worries about her son going to prison the way everybody worried every second that Sully might be found guilty of being a hero. The whole film has an uncomfortable, tense feeling which Eastwood establishes in the masterful Centennial Park bombing scenes and carries throughout. Set in 1996, filled with brand name products, tense with worry but stuck at home, Richard Jewell is an accurate portrait of the U.S.A. Eastwood insists it hasn’t changed much in twenty-three years.
By getting the streaming service Netflix to produce and release into movie theaters a hugely expensive, three-and-a-half-hour-long movie, Martin Scorsese proved something about the cinema today and how moviegoing is different than watching TV. The Irishman, which on-screen is called I Heard You Paint Houses, which is a better title, is a story of friendship and the false sense of duty that can come from it as it deteriorates over fifty years. I saw The Irishman in a huge theater on a giant screen, and I did not want to get up, didn’t want it to end, and could have watched another hour of it if there was one. It seems like most everybody who watched it at home complained it was too long, redundant, and looked funny. It did not seem like entertainment to them. That was the message they sent out into the world and it reached me loud and clear.
What does that mean? Do I have a false sense of duty to the cinema? Or have people who watch movies at home, even great ones, been trained by their quality-TV habit to want things to be bingeable in forty-five-minute chunks, easy to ignore, and better to listen to than to watch? Most people seemed to have viewed The Irishman over the Christmas holiday. Could it be that their bad mood about it has something to do with frustration with their own families, and with the sense of entrapment that comes with being home for Christmas? That’s where I think the real false duty is. The cinema may be an escape, but the living room couch in your parents’ house definitely is not one.
A web of entrapment and manipulation surrounds the character played by Robert De Niro in The Irishman. A truck driver and union man who learned to kill in World War II, his Frank Sheeran explodes myths about the Greatest Generation, revealing the brutality that shaped them and made them into conformists. For men who came back and worked in the insurance industry, maybe that worked out. Working for the mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the union organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), however, was not good for Frank’s character or his soul. Bufalino and Hoffa supersede Frank’s own family and expect loyalty without question. They represent a post-war employment economy that continues as the two styles of work—insurance companies and the mob—have merged into the same kind of corporate extortion racket.
While the florid Hoffa is the lesser of the two evils in Frank’s life, his ideals make him less convincing than the corrupt and ruthless Bufalino, who wields a quiet mastery over others. The exception is Frank’s daughter (Lucy Gallina, then Anna Paquin) who is repelled by Russell and fond of Jimmy. The awards banquet scene in this film, with Paquin and Pacino dancing while Pesci plots his demise with a reluctant De Niro, more than justifies the film’s running time, just as certain scenes justify the enormous running times of films like The Leopard, and that scene probably also has a basis in all the awards shows Scorsese has had to attend over the years.
PAIN AND GLORY
Pedro Almodóvar’s elegy to memory and loss in the life of a film director is the exact opposite of The Irishman or Uncut Gems. This is the story of a man who wants to stay at home, see nobody, and do nothing. He doesn’t even want to go to awards shows. His pain is completely internalized, as we learn in a beautifully colorful animated sequence that combines PowerPoint art and medical graphics. Salvador (Antonio Banderas), a respected film director, has learned that Pascal was right when he said that all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. That’s also a description of dying, as Salvador has slowly learned while reaching the point where he can’t do anything to get better. Then film programmers reunite him with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the junkie actor he blames for fucking up one of his films.
The two of them have been asked to introduce a restored version of one of Salvador’s early movies, Sabor, from the 1980s. (Almodóvar has become a master at looking back at the eighties.) Alberto, the actor, asks to read a memoir Salvador has been working on, which describes Salvador’s life at that time. After reading it, Alberto decides he should turn it into a stage monologue. Its performance, not credited to Salvador, will reunite him with his lost love (Leonardo Sbaraglia) from the time of Sabor.
Almodóvar’s ability to be both ultra-contemporary in his settings and ultra-modern in describing the past are unique in the cinema. Much of the film concerns Salvador’s childhood when, as it happens, he lived in cave with his mother (Penelope Cruz), and a hunky local handyman (César Vicente) painted his portrait. Almodóvar is perhaps the only director in the world who can make cave-dwelling feel like living in an art gallery, and definitely the only one who could convince us that Penelope Cruz is Antonio Banderas’s mother. As a film about filmmaking, Pain and Glory pivots on the mechanics of how screenwriting becomes cinema. Its meta-cinematic ending rivals Little Women’s but refuses to try to impress anyone watching it, a perfect encapsulation of Salvador’s character as he comes back to life.
This whodunit is light entertainment at its finest, a surprising movie with an enjoyable sense of complication and a dream cast. It showed up like it came out of nowhere even though it was made by Rian Johnson, who directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
As in Parasite, three generations end up in the same mansion, here a towering Victorian pile somewhere in Massachusetts. The patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of a wealthy family, a successful and prolific mystery writer who refuses to franchise his work to movies or TV, dies under mysterious circumstances. Naturally, each member of his family becomes a suspect. His refusal to option his work is an amusing plot point from the best director of a Star Wars movie. Among his family, I thought Toni Collette was the most excellent as a purveyor of Goop-ish lifestyle products in from Los Angeles, but Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michael Shannon all really rose to the challenge of the genre.
Each of them was appropriately bold and squirmy while questioned by Daniel Craig, playing an incongruous Southern detective with the unlikely name Benoit Blanc. We are told he is from a long line of master police detectives down South. Maybe Blanc’s father was Sheriff J. W. Pepper from Live and Let Die and he met James Bond when Bond was Roger Moore and not Daniel Craig. Who associates police detectives from Mississippi with getting to the truth? Blanc, however, proves to be a friend of the working class when he helps the family’s Latina housekeeper (Ana de Armas) negotiate the schemes of the duplicitous family she works for, and Craig, in his absurd Southern accent, gets to ask the strangest question in movies this year, about the patriarch’s alt-right grandson (Jaeden Martell): “What were the overheard words of the Nazi child masturbatin’ in the bathroom?”
No detective comes to anyone’s rescue in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and the ghost-man hidden in the basement (Park Myung-hoon) is not set free like the Anne Frank surrogate in the attic in Jojo Rabbit. He’s just replaced with another invisible man, the father of a poor family who is also the star of this film (Song Kang-ho). The Kim family, who live in a tiny basement apartment and have to suffer the humiliation of having drunks on the street piss in it through their half-window, all understand that “money is an iron” that smooths things out for the lives of the rich. So when they see the opportunity to move one at a time into the mansion of a wealthy family by getting jobs there, they take it. They revel in the successful scheme they put over on these distracted, self-involved rich people, until the family’s condescension causes Mr. Kim to lash out at a party for the Parks’ son (Jung Hyeon-jun). The birthday party is a real eye-opener, the best scene about killing the rich that the cinema has produced in a long, long time.
Between Parasite and The Irishman, I’ve got to stop looking at Twitter. I saw a very intelligent person I know very cynically tweeting that Parasite’s success came down to canny decisions on the part of its American distributor, and then announcing that the film wasn’t sufficiently socialist. This has got to be the least predictable effect of social networking: someone in the United States upset because a successful Korean genre film doesn’t address the concerns of the DSA in the exact right way.
At the same time that was happening, other critics were picking through Hong Sang-soo’s fifteen or so films of the decade trying to determine which one was the best so they could put it on their Top Ten Films of the Decade lists. None of that has anything to do with film criticism as far as I’m concerned, and denying that Bong’s work was leading to this galvanizing movie which has really shocked people into further questioning the wealth gap and understanding the precariousness of the urban underclass in an era of climate change was reactionary in some kind of new pop culture way.
It is not just those things that make Parasite an excellent movie, and there is plenty of room in the cinema for both Bong Joon-ho and Hong Sang-soo. It may be that the few people who grumbled about Parasite are just allergic to peaches, but I think what they’re really allergic to is class-based criticism in works of popular entertainment, especially when they are fueled by violence, comedy, clever screenwriting, and sharp acting. If popular movies become too leftist and continue to improve, they are going to be really annoyed.