This year, I’m getting a very early start on my usual mosey through the year’s most mainstream movies and/or easy-to-find indie movies.
- Get Out
This year, I’m getting a very early start on my usual mosey through the year’s most mainstream movies and/or easy-to-find indie movies.
From time to time, until November 8, people last year would ask me how much I was loving the political circus. “It must be the story of your career,” they’d say.
“Well, yes,” I would say. “Much like Joan Didion got the story of her career when her husband and daughter dead.”
Hyperbole — it’s our new lingua franca. I’d reported on politics for most of my life by the time the 2016 election began, and knew that elections typically devolved into gaffe-policing and guides to which ads were false. (Usually not most of them.) But 2016 was, as the documentarian Adam Curtis put it, a defeat for journalism, in which people like me were reminded how little people want to hear information that rumbles their worldview. My worst memory of the year is not anything from a rally; it is becoming part of the problem, and telling friends on election night that early returns suggested their favored candidate would win.
Lots of hairshirting already; I don’t need to add more. Once I got some distance from the election, I felt bursts of pleasure about what good had come out of the year.
Crank up the listicle-maker.
I wrote a book. After 12 years of daydreaming and 3 years of writing, I finished my history of progressive rock; it’s being edited now for a June 2017 release. The panic I have about articles (did I leave in any clunk? Will a grammar scold hunt me down?) is multiplied 1000fold but this is a lifetime goal that cost me a personal life and feels worth it.
I made new friends. This happens every fours, and while I’m not sure how much longer it can happen — do I want to be passing out on the Gillibrand campaign plane at age 39? — it’s always a joy. You develop a little patois on the campaign bus, and (assuming you’re not singularly annoying) you share it with people who are chasing the same deadlines as you. You trade transcripts; you let her have a question because he has a follow-up because you asked a question already.
I survived a car crash. Wasn’t planning on it, but a small nightmare finally came to me. I was making good time on the road from Madison to Green Bay (to De Pere, first), when a traffic stoppage came out of nowhere and I spun off, taking a car with me. The permanent damage has been a right thumb that no longer bends. And that is it. I could have died, I didn’t, and have never felt the same since.
I do a version of this every year. The campaign and my book deadline made this year’s explorations a little more limited — which is fine. I have maybe 10 more to see in order to not be befuddled by award season.
I’ve been traveling for work, so — maybe blessedly — I didn’t initially see this AP story by two reporters I like very much personally. It’s no patch on them when I say that “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election” is a textbook-ready case of how the search for equivalence can wreck a piece of journalism.
The problems previewed by the headline get worse in the nut graf.
Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Two problems here. One: The ties between Trump and the Russians are by no means as “murky” as the conspiracy theory that Clinton’s doctors (and her campaign schedule) are covering up a devastating illness. Two: The Russia talk is not a pushback on the “Hillary’s health” stuff. It’s been happening independently; indeed, Clinton was been pushing it before Trump elevated the health rumors.
The second point is just obviously misleading, while the first requires the application of blinders that characters the worst both-sides journalism. Much of the story deals with the ways Trump has tried to exploit Internet theories about Clinton’s health, and how Clinton’s pivoted from that to an attack on Trump’s embrace of kookery more generally. The “but Russia!” equivalence platter is saved for the final two grafs.
In the aftermath of hacked Democratic emails, Trump encouraged hackers from Russia to find Clinton’s missing State Department emails, an apparent invitation for a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election.
Clinton’s team frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia. Her campaign has a page on its website devoted to a Q-and-A about Trump’s “bizarre relationship” with Russia, fueling an unproven theory that Trump is a shill for Putin.
So on the one hand, Trump is elevating theories that rely on rumors or forged medical records; on the other, Clinton’s accusation that Trump “is a shill for Putin” is “unproven.” But the first attack is baseless; the second is political rhetoric based on — wait for it — reporting from the AP.
I’m not fond of quickie campaign “fact sheets” like “5 questions every voter should ask about Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia.” Question 5 suggests that “Trump publicly encouraged further Russian espionage to help his campaign.” That’s true, though Trump later tried to pass it off as a joke. Question 4 is fishier, noting that “some suggest” that Trump’s as-yet hidden tax returns might reveal deals with Russian oligarchs. But the basis is a 2008 quote from Trump’s son Donald: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
Question 3 suggests that Trump would fulfill a Russian “wish list.” Again, there’s a basis: He has talked about lifting sanctions on Russia, and he rather uniquely among Republicans has said he wouldn’t contest the annexation of Crimea. Question 1 quotes a few instances of Trump praising Putin.
But Question 2 is the humdinger. Asking why Trump “surround[s] himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin,” the Clinton campaign… explains the links several Trump advisers have to Russia. The outdated page spends the most time on Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until this month. The “kill shot” on Manafort is generally understood to be the AP’s August 17 story on his secret work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian faction.
Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.
So, on the one hand, Trump’s campaign and surrogates are speculating wildly — and in some cases, citing bogus medical information — to question whether Hillary Clinton’s health has collapsed. On the other hand, Clinton’s campaign is citing Trump’s public statements, his family’s public statements, and the financial ties of campaign advisers to say that he’s shilling for Russia.
I am wracking my brains, and I can’t imagine how these two stories were conflated. In the quest to say that Both Sides Do It, the AP elevated Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Clinton’s health to the level of his campaign’s well-reported Russia friendliness; it downgraded that friendliness to the level of a conspiracy.
The word for this is not “balanced.” It’s “pathetic.”
Apparently, for years, people have misremembered Will Smith’s alien-punching “Independence Day” quip as “Welcome ta Urf” and not the clearly enunciated “Welcome to Earth” that one of our most beloved and marketable stars actually delivered.
General consensus: People be racist. And I spend a lot of time on the Internet, so I can confirm that people are pretty racist.
However, I wonder if there’s a less ethnocentric reason for the wide misremembering of the scene. Thinking of it, I remembered Will Smith chomping on a cigar as he punched the alien. With a cigar in your mouth, “Welcome to Earth” would indeed sound more like “Weh-come ta Urf.”
I remembered it wrong. First, Smith punched the alien. Then he said “Welcome to Earth.” THEN he grabbed a cigar (he was just carrying one), put it in his mouth, and said: “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”
Because humans have evolved to minimize the amount of trauma we remember, we have forgotten that second, clunk-tastic quip. Indeed, many “Welcome ta Urf” memes use the photo of Smith and the cigar, suggesting that people conflate the two lines and their relative use of Smith’s mouth and teeth.
In conclusion, racism is over. Congratulations, everyone!
People like to complain about things on the Internet. People also like to complain about the vast amount of Internet devoted to complaining. I rise today to defend an unjustly maligned form of gripe: Twitter-shaming airlines for bad service.
Since Twitter became the main method by which journalists talk to each other, some have spoken out against the microblogging tool as a way to yell at airlines. To wit, just to quote people I know in DC:
Twitter should have an "airline ranter" setting. Carrier sees your public shaming for awful service but we don't have to listen.
— Todd Zwillich (@toddzwillich) December 31, 2015
@NYTnickc Airline complaint Twitter is almost as bad as pro-Yankee Twitter.
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) December 28, 2015
And, most relevantly, here is Jack Shafer reacting to my gasket-blowing about a botched American Airlines flight today, which as of this writing might strand me in O’Hare for seven hours and cancel two in-person interviews.
Tell me more about your cancelled connections. https://t.co/Zw8prc1tOC
— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) January 3, 2016
Here, I would refer to the wisdom of Ricky from “Trailer Park Boys.” If you’re inclined to nag someone for using Twitter to talk to an airline, make like a tree and fuck off.
1. A problematic flight is a time-suck at every level. If I’m on a work trip, I likely spent a few hours setting up interviews, a rental car, a hotel room, etc. A late flight or blown connection means I erase that work and start over. Emails, phone calls, online wrangling to reshuffle plans. You can see why the person doing all that might also take to social media to say “hey, this is no fun.”
2. Stranded airplane time is arguably the most unproductive time. Trying to do work? You need to hunt for a place to charge your device. Oh, and most planes don’t have places to do that, and neither do (most) airplane restaurants.* No, you’re likely be spending this time in a cramped space, at high risk of proximity to a baby (loud but harmless) or someone who doesn’t want to dirty his hand by using it to block a cough.** You could make a phone call, but you can’t exactly tell people to call you back, because — optimistically — you want to be in the air. Also, how effective are you when your brain is calculating and recalculating whether you can make a connection or land before Hertz shuts down?
The answer is “not very.”
3. Twitter gets results! Honestly, most of Twitter — the part I love most — is bullshit self-promotion and joke-telling. Do you need that in your life? You do not, fun as it is.
Ah, but airline-shaming — airline-shaming is a shotgun wedding of stupid form to beautiful function. As popular as Twitter is, it’s easier to reach a human being at an airline there than it is over the phone. Let’s use the example I’m most familiar with, today’s. I needed to connect in Dallas to a flight to O’Hare, which would connect me to a Sioux City flight. (I note here that I woke up at 4:10 am to do this.) Two stupid events intervened. One: A plastic bag had blown on the plane’s wheels earlier that day, and melted a bit. That took twenty minutes to clear. Two: A plane in O’Hare needed a part, so our (already delayed!) flight was chosen as the vehicle to bring it. Another twenty minutes.
I was supposed to land at 12:41 in pursuit of a 1:34 connection. Good enough! Instead, I spent 40 minutes watching as the arrival time crept just late enough to likely guarantee that I would arrive as the gate closed. (Let’s say 1:24, to be safe.) At 12:05 I tweeted:
Will you slam the doors to my connection and strand me in the airport overnight? Flight 3404 to SUX. This delay is outrageous.
At 12:30, this DM came through:
We’ve alerted ORD of your tight connection. We can’t guarantee that they can hold the connection, but they’re aware. In the event you don’t make it, you’ve been protected on the next flight to SUX, which is at 8:39p.
See? That… technically did not solve my problem at all. But that confirmed my presence on the airline’s radar, and gave me something to point to if I’m screwed again. (A few times I’ve been given airline miles and whatnot to make amends.) In a pre-Twitter world, what would I have had? Maybe, maybe, some ear time with a call center staffer who could not help.
In conclusion, hail Twitter. And fuck O’Hare. I swear if I give myself a 20-minute connection, I sprint across the entire airport. If I have a three-hour connection, I get a two hour 40 minute delay and spring across the entire airport.
*Some appreciation here for Minneapolis, with its identical but convenient bars that plunk down stools right in front of outlets.
**Not to capsize an already-irritating post with something yet more irritating, but if you have an Apple Watch — yes, yes, I know — and do not engage in some light walking or aerobics every hour, you get an alert shaming you to do so. Getting that alert when stuck in a tarmac’d airplane is a special sort of shit-nudge.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The praise for this movie has reached the rare incandescence granted to the sort of religious texts that start cults, or to the first season of the Sopranos. Goddamn if it ain’t earned. It’s hard to avoid metatextual details here (How, how did George Miller outdo his earlier movies 30 years later?), but the movie stands without them, all unforgettable imagery and eyeball-burning stunts — one long chase scene that never let you stop feeling the stakes. The acid test of a great movie is whether you smile when you remember it. This one passes.
Forget what I said about smiling.
4. Mistress America
Noah Baumbach’s work has inspired and frustrated me in equal measure, but Greta Gerwig is the best thing that ever happened to him.
6. Inside Out
7. Ex Machina
8. What We Do in the Shadows
9. The Martian
10. It Follows
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
14. The Big Short
15. Clouds of Sils Maria
17. While We’re Young
18. Straight Outta Compton
20. Love and Mercy
21. The Hateful Eight
23. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
24. Magic Mike XXL
26. The Revenant
27. Mr. Holmes
28. Steve Jobs
29. Jurassic World
30. Kingsman: The Secret Service
31. Far From the Madding Crowd
32. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
33. People Places Things
34. The End of the Tour
36. Queen of Earth
37. Pitch Perfect 2
39. Crimson Peak
41. The Overnight
42. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
43. Welcome to Me
44. Jupiter Ascending
47. Furious 7
48. The Wolfpack
50. Black Mass
52. Terminator: Genisys
53. Fantastic Four
54. Ted 2
55. Fifty Shades of Grey
56. The Human Centipede: Final Sequence
58. Hot Tub Time Machine 2
If a truly great movie raises your dopamine levels, a truly bad one makes you want to sit down and drink in the sorrows of wasted talent. A murderer’s row of talent is, well, murdered — Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, all subsumed by a dark, homophobic saga of revenge and greed. Like light devoured in a black hole, otherwise wonderful people become grim.
tl;dr It was okay and most people will like it, but it offered virtually none of the fresh ideas and visuals that make sci-fi interesting.
So: “The Force Awakens!” I plunked down my $17 to see this in 3-D, and everything went as well as you could hope, with good friends arriving on time to sit together and two of said friends going in on a large popcorn. But I left in a sour mood, partly because I had to wake at 5 am for a flight, partly because, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, it’s so sad to watch a sweet $200 million squandered on old ideas.
Things Which Were Good
BB-8. It’s cute. Slightly disturbing to see copies of this droid celling in electronics stores for a year, based on the strength of that first trailer, but we all know that “Star Wars” is in large part a toy-flogging record.
The new cast members. We were programmed to like them, of course, in that masterful 18-month ad campaign. (Remember the first cast photo was a black-and-white “candid” of a read? Remember the instant debate and hot-takery, a dark Force nightmare of what Internet was to come?) But I’ll be damned if they didn’t live up to it. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are perfect, like the character traits of Luke Skywalker split into two British people who can actually act. (Okay, Mark Hamill got better over time.) Adam Driver, whose “huh?” factor was apparently a worry for marketers, finds a perfect use of his play-doh looks and oddly threatening shape. Speaking of:
Kylo Ren’s tantrums. Something we hadn’t seen before: A villain with Force powers who, instead of taking defeats in stride, starts flipping out like a kid who got Madden 2K15 instead of 2K16 for Christmas. If the filmmakers were committed to rebooting Darth Vader (and it worked, if the number of kids I see in Kylo Ren masks tells us anything).
That big death scene. An indescribable asshole on Twitter — but I repeat myself — spoiled it for me. That I felt myself getting weepy anyway is a testament to how well it was handled.
The action, in general. To appreciate it I’d point you to a copy of the prequels, which I still refuse to hate. In his dotage, George Lucas was a strange and coma-inclined director, whose idea of an action scene was two people (or one person and a CGI droid) standing in a frame, jumping around each other, as the audiences’ eyes wandered to the obvious green-screen scenery. JJ Abrams, for all his lack of imagination, makes this action move, with characters conquering the frame and skirting what looks to us like actual danger.
Things which are bad
World-building (or lack thereof). Did you want some haggard character to sit down and explain the last 30-odd years since the defeat of the Emperor? No, neither did I. But in the words of Sonny Bunch:
“So what if the movie makes no sense, read all this extra stuff” is still a failure of storytelling. https://t.co/HzWxrZJ8eA
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) December 22, 2015
An attentive viewer is left wondering why the victory at the close of “Return of the Jedi” led, 30-odd years later, to a fascist empire that looks to have inherited all of the old toys. Dig around online and you can kind of figure out that the Republic got cocky and disarmed, but there’s no sense of how the First Order arose. Speaking of…
The First Order. Oh, the potential of this idea. The Empire collapses, and a younger, meaner, more capricious fascist force rises. These villains are obviously aware of what brought the Empire low: Boondoggle super-bases that had weaknesses their enemies could exploit and explode. So what do the new villains do? They re-use the resources of the Empire, from troop armor to war ships, and they… build a boondoggle super-base that can be blown up if its weakness is exploited.
Music. If I say “hum ‘Duel of the Fates,’” or maybe more helpfully refer to it as “the Darth Maul song,”
Few people argue that the new movie’s music is memorable; maybe they argue that Williams did something warm and subtle with “Rey’s Theme.” But the dominant argument seems to be that the music is forgettable because it doesn’t have to overcompensate for stupid filler scenes. Eh.
Deux ex machinas (machinae?): Like Ryan Vogt asks, what caused R2D2 to wake up from stasis, other than the fact that the movie was about to end? Like Sonny Bunch asks, how did Rey know what Force suggestion was — not how to do it, but what it was — given that she’s skeptical the Force even exists? There’s a larger metatextual problem here, and it’s that science fiction imagined space travel advancing with much more ease than it imagined communication technology advancing. So, in a galaxy where ships can travel light years in seconds, nobody has the ability to google (or flibbertiwock, or whatever it would be called here).
Nothing new to look at. This was the problem that left me lowering my rating of the film. Even the weaker George Lucas-verse properties put in effort to create weird new worlds. We never saw an undersea Star Wars city until “The Phantom Menace.” We never saw a clone factory until (ugh) “Attack of the Clones.” We never saw a lava planet until the genuinely great final battle of “Revenge of the Sith.”
Abrams’s “Star Wars” just gives us the best of what we saw and liked already — a cynic might think they adapted the toys and playsets that sold the best. If this wasn’t Lucasfilms approved, you’d call it plagiarism.
Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
As I finish my book about the progressive rock movement — or, more to the point, as I procrastinate by spending 20 minutes writing something else — two nagging demons keep jumping on my shoulder. One says that I need to do a bit more work to get the story right. (That’s for the second draft, asshole.) One whispers the possibility that someone will cover the same subject, and drop it when my book drops, and make me wilt in the shadow.
So: I do not envy James Vanderbilt. Under normal circumstances, in which there are no movies about journalism in theaters, he would have just made a frustratingly bad one. The cruel god of timing cursed him to release that bad movie just weeks before “Spotlight,” probably the best movie of 2015, and one of the best-ever about journalism.
Talking to another friend (a journalist) who sat through both, we found ourselves wondering why Truth‘s story of hubris and failure was so much less compelling than Spotlight‘s story of success. It’s more than the clunky writing or Truth‘s seemingly endless use of slo-mo for effect. It’s that Spotlight is just so much smarter, and finds the darkness, the lack of real satisfaction, even in what seems like success.
It’s a smart movie, is what I’m saying. Truth is most decidedly not. It adapts the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who we would remember as the scapegoat of the botched story on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, if not for the fact that Dan Rather threw his scalp on top of hers. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, Robert Redford plays Rather, and both seem to be stretching the thin material into Oscar-shapes. It does not work, because they are trapped in the kind of movie that introduces a heroic veteran with a slow-mo shot of him saluting at a rainy military funeral; the kind of movie where a character warns that “you’ll know it’s bad when they ask to see our source,” then later has a villainous executive ask to see the source, and the same character turn and wryly tell his companion “now it’s bad.”
These are decisions that assume a very stupid audience. Strange, because… who did Vanderbilt think his audience was? The “Rathergate” disaster was compelling enough to inspire a similar story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the only people who want to revisit it are journalists and partisans who know the basics of the story. They — okay, we — are not permitted to watch a straightforward drama about how ego and speed and outright fraud can throw lives off course. No, no, instead we get Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately is the character I keep citing as example of the cinema sins here) telling a colleague that Mapes wanted to break this story in 2000, but her mother fell ill, and you know, “537 votes in Florida.”
We feel whipsawed between two equally stupid theories. One: The story of George W. Bush skipping out on TANG service was big enough to change the election. Two: The story was true, and repressed by partisans. Both are highly dubious. Add to this a cringe-inducing scene where a reporter on the story, played by Topher Grace, is being escorted out of the CBS News building and rants about how corporations are trying to suppress any news that threatens their power. It’s the sort of thing the whole narrative is implying, and then a character actually vocalizes it, and we shudder at the stupidity.
There is nothing like that in Spotlight. Actually, the only thin criticism it’s received has focused on the lack of character-building. I found that criticism totally misguided. McCarthy’s script perfectly captures how journalists talk, and more specifically how these journalists talk. (I only know one of them, Marty Baron, who hired me at the Washington Post, and anyone who wishes Liev Schreiber’s Baron was more animated or explosive is wishing he got the role wrong.)
Lots of people have heaped praise on the plotting and momentum of this movie. I think the characterization has been underrated. We do not get or need expository scenes of how months of work on the Catholic Church abuse scandal is affecting Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We get a scene of her struggling with a dishwasher, and a telling look from her husband when another reporter (Mark Ruffalo) shows up late at night and asks for her. We get that reporter, Mike Rezendes, living in a hovel that he says he can’t really move out of what with the story consuming his time. We get that fact when the Boston Globe’s assistant managing editor (John Slattery) shows up with leftovers, because he knows Rezendes doesn’t have time to cook.
I loved everything about this movie, but what stuck with me was the lack of finality. After Rezendes delivers a copy of the paper with the first (of 600+) Catholic Church expose pieces on the front, he walks past two children who have an appointment with the attorney. They’d been molested two weeks earlier. Two weeks — after we’d seen a lengthy legal fight for documents and a six-week reporting delay due to the 9/11 attacks putting demands on the newsroom. We are told this iteratively, not force-fed. Strangely, it’s Truth that sanctifies the act of journalism and Spotlight that clarifies it.