Ink-Stained Wretches

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.

Thoughts that Make You Think: Cruise Edition

The reasons arrayed against me ever going on a cruise were legion. I don’t like being trapped in one setting; I add to my girth by trying new restaurants, not squatting at buffets; I read that one David Foster Wallace essay that everyone’s read; a great-aunt last her husband to food poisoning on a mid-1990s cruise. Yes, she got a settlement, but I don’t have any dependents right now, so the death-by-cruise possibility carried little appeal for me.

Still, I went on a cruise. With the dual purposes of writing an article and filling out the first chapter of my book, I joined the second annual “Cruise to the Edge,” giving me a week in close quarters with 2500 fans of progressive rock and some of their favorite bands. Yes! Marillion! PFM! Tangerine Dream! Several bands consisting of an old group’s members, but not legally able to use the group’s name! (Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Soft Machine Legacy, Three Friends [The Music of Gentle Giant].)

Briefly, before I write the words I get paid for, it kicked a little ass. Among the things I learned:

– People over age 50 have trouble believing that a magazine with no paper version is real. (Apropos of nothing, the Chinese government feels the same way, and will only grant media visas to non-TV/radio organizations which publish print versions or syndicate in print media.)

– Human beings are constantly at risk of killing each other with disease. Every communal space on the ship featured a warning about contamination; bathroom doors carried signs asking those exiting to cover their hands with paper towels before grabbing doorknobs.

– You’ve got to have some bland food available, because some people simply want to eat that way. The one scheduled excursion I took (to Mayan ruins, joined by Edgar from Tangerine Dream) featured a pretty solid Mexican lunch. A Cruise to the Edge crew member who’d brought his family on the excursion loudly complained, and asked why they didn’t “at least have some hot dogs.” Also, bland food –> less diarrhea. (Potentially.)

– The Mayan descendants who lead some tour groups are really bitter about the whole civilizational destruction thing.

– The happiest man in the world is the man who watched Tangerine Dream live on a boat while he sits in a hot tub. (Note: This was not me.)

– Buying the drink vouchers in advance saves you money and makes you a popular man/woman when you realize you need to give some of them away to the folks you like.

Additional Movies

The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2013) – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam. Chris O’Dowd plays the band manager with as much effort as he’s been asked for; when we first see him, he is sleeping hungover in a station wagon, and shook awake by the cliched sounds of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.” The girls are cute and funny, becoming more predictable as the plot rolls on, and listening intently when a black soldier tells them what it’s like fighting for The Man.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013) – The director/writer’s follow-up to “Blue Valentine” is a strangely optimistic noir that takes place over 18 years. Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stuntman who learns he fathered a son and turns to bank robbery to provide for him. Bradley Cooper plays a young cop who happens to be closest to Gosling when he slips; and he, too, has a young son. Both actors work well within their archetypes (Gosling wordless and sad, Cooper rash but pulling back before it’s too late), and Ray Liota brightens up the melodrama as an adeptly crooked cop, but the plot’s pretty predictable — actually, worse than that, because it ends up with fewer consequences and more obvious emotional resonance than you expected going in.

Alternative Oscars

When you see as many movies as I do, you reserve the right to get catty about Oscar nominations. This post will collect the various actors and movies and scores and whatnot that, to me, got ignored.

Best Actor
Tim Heidecker, “The Comedy”

Rick Alverson’s update of “Five Easy Pieces” is divisive, by design. If you don’t want to watch flabby, rich thirtysomethings behave like utter assholes as they fritter away their lives, go watch fucking “Snow White and the Huntsman” or something. If you do want to watch that, then Tim Heidecker’s antihero, Swanson, is a hilarious ball of loathsomeness who makes the average Lena Dunham character look tolerable. Heidecker own work is pure dada nonsense (which is a plus, for me). When he’s shown up in other peoples’ movies, he’s had little chance to prove himself. (He’s the fiance in “Bridesmaids,” the guy with literally zero dialogue.) But he’s brilliant here.

Best Song
Rick Ross, “100 Black Coffins”

This should be obvious. Didn’t the Oscars reward Eminem and Three 6 Mafia not so long ago? Tell me this song isn’t better than the piffle written so that “Les Miserables” could get another nomination.

Best Original Score
Howard Shore and Metric, “Cosmopolis”

The movie is pretentious, poorly adapted twaddle, but the soundtrack smushes together Shore’s drawing-room avant-gardism with the bright, shiny pop of the Canadian alt-rock group. This song, “I Don’t Want to Wake Up,” appears ambiently in the film, as the late-night glowstick jam at a nightclub. That’s what makes it so good — what nightclub would play this song with its herky-jerk dynamics and vocals distorted into something that sounds like a phone call from the bottom of a deepwater oil rig?

A series of controversial but harmless opinions about current happenings

– I actually like the new characters on Glee. To a man, they’re improvements on the non-actors foisted upon us by “The Glee Project.” The actress who plays Marley is cute, and I can say that, because she’s like seven years older than she looks.

– I also like that song, even though it’s an overproduced P!nk single.

– I have no use for the band Fun, or their sub-John Hughes hit “We Are Young.” Seriously? That’s how Janelle Monae breaks into the bigs? By yowling some harmonies about setting the night on fire?

– I support The Gossip’s evolution into a strange jingle-writing outfit.

– Once you re-add the sidebar — people, it takes one fucking mouse click — the new iTunes is quite attractive and functional. Seems to do less random color wheel-spinning, too.

“The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)


“The Evil Dead” is a fine horror movie. “Evil Dead II” is a bona fide classic. Here’s the joke: They’re basically the same movie. The first one was directed by a 22-year-old Sam Raimi when he wanted to prove he could conjure real screams with no money. The second, six years later, was a comedy that had terrific (and much-copied) fun with the cliches of the slasher pic. And since then, it’s been hard to take the cabin-in-the-woods movie very seriously. It’s a set-up that works best as parody (“Dead Snow,” “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil”) or psychological fuck-you-up (“Antichrist”), but not as horror. (One problem: Once cell technology became cheap and omnipresent, audiences noticed when you ostentatiously put characters in places where their iPhones were bricked.)

And so we have “The Cabin in the Woods,” a sort of ur-parody of all horror movies that uses the cursed, electronically stranded outpost as a starting point. It was co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. I was a little surprised at the choice of partners, because Goddard worked on the final, more-serious season of Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He’s kept his end up and created a seriously funny satire of slasher flicks, but he’s kept the serious stuff in there.

My first spoiler: “The Cabin in the Woods” posits that the Ancients (a little Lovecraft reference for you) sleep beneath the earth. They require frequent human sacrifies. If they don’t get them, they’ll rise and destroy mankind. Resourceful humans have figured out a solution: In secluded underground locations, all over the planet, they trap unsuspecting people into cliched horror scenarios, get their kills, and send the blood down to the Ancients to shut ’em up.

It’s a fun concept with only a few logic holes. The American trope-bunker — run by two bored bureaucrats played perfectly by Brad Whitford and Richard Jenkins — makes sure that four or five archetypes get killed. The archetypes: a Fool, a Whore, an Athlete, a Scholar, and a Virgin. (The virgin doesn’t NEED to be killed, necessarily. See: Every horror movie ever, and the Last Girl trope.) But an extremely funny side-story shows us that the usually-successful Japanese trope-bunker is trying to appease the Ancients with a sort of Ringu-rip-off, a ghost girl terrorizing a room of schoolchildren. It’s hilarious (particularly when it fails and Jenkins yells “Fuck you!” at all of the tiny children on his screen), but… are the five archetypes present in a Japanese girl’s school? I’m skeptical.

NONETHELESS: The movie gives a set of five undergrads, all credible spouters of Whedonesque dialogue, who fit the archetypes almost perfectly. (We have a lot of fun with the “almosts.” The jock, played by Chris Hemsworth, is actually a Sociology major with a working expertise of Soviet history. The “virgin” isn’t actually a virgin, so the “director” of the conspiracy shrugs that “we work with what we’ve got.”) They play their parts. It’s the “Fool,” a pothead played by Fran Kranz, who assumes that the weirdness afflicting them is being orchestrated somehow. He and the Virgin (Kristen Connolly, a soap opera actress like Sarah Michelle Gellar once was) manage to unravel the conspiracy. In so doing, they… make possible the gruesome murder of hundreds of bureaucrats, then destroy the world.

Perhaps I haven’t sold you on this movie. Very well. Two words: Killer unicorn.

“The Hunger Games” and “21 Jump Street”

The Hunger Games (2012)

Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy is written in the first person, from the perspective of a resourceful, sarcastic, unforgettable girl. For unfair reasons — similar pop cultural timing — I compare Katniss Everdeen to Harry Potter and Bella Swan, and Katniss comes out on top. She’s a wonderful bullshit-caller. She’s realistic and guarded about boys. She’s a fount of witty observations about the insane society she was born into, where twelve tattered Districts provide for a decadent Capitol. (My friend and colleague Matthew Yglesias explains how this works.)

The film adaptation of the first novel gives the Katniss role to Jennifer Lawrence, an approachably gorgeous actress who slummed in TV, then broke big in the fine 2010 sleeper Winter’s Bone, then appeared in The Beaver for some reason. She’s a star now, even though her Katniss is less than I hoped for. The film is, well, a film. There’s no first-person musing. We know that Katniss is smart and wry because she stars cold through the parade of idiots making her life harder — and eventually trying to kill her.

I’m leading with my only complaint. This is just a terrific blockbuster, disorienting and absorbing. The art direction is by Tom Stern, who honed his craft on a lot of crap (the horribly failed J. Edgar), beautifully frames the gingham poverty of District 12 and the Caprica-esque sleaze of the Capitol. Director Gary Ross — who previously directed two lame period pieces — puts his camera sickeningly close to the action. Look at thee start of the Games, when tributes are permitted to run toward a stash of weapons. It’s a perfect chance for them to kill each other. We see them do it with quick shots of bloody weapons raised after striking, knives flying too fast to track.

21 Jump Street (2012)

Surprisingly great slackjaw comedy.

“Chronicle” and “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”

Chronicle (2012)

“I remember you,” says Steve (Michael B. Jordan) to Andrew (Dante DeHaan), as the two of them walk to check out a hole in the ground. “You wore that hoody every day to homeroom.”

Subtle, isn’t it? In the first 15 minutes, Josh Trank and Max Landis’s “Chronicle” has shown us that Andrew has a screaming, abusive father, a dying mother, a gallery of exciting bullies, a cool cousin (a different kind of problem there) — and now, a habit of dressing like the kid who shoots up the school. Another title for this movie might be “X-Columbine.” But I don’t want to get too snarky, because the creators are both several years younger than me, and they’re there while I’m here.

“Chronicle” is a good-looking, diverting movie, but derivative as all hell. Non-nerds might not notice this. Nerds, the sort of people who’ve dreamed about the situation Andrew, Steve, and cousin Matt get into, will notice. The most evocative images call back “Superman” (you’ll believe a sociopath can fly!) or, more often, “Akira” (when Andrew levitates and some pebbles come with him; when he goes on a rampage wearing tattered hospital garb).

And is it good? It’s fine.

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012)

Let us give thanks that producers keep giving money to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. They don’t even try to hide that they’re in the business of avante garde, audience-limiting weirdness. So they made a movie about it: Tommy Schlaang (Frank Langella!) gives two idiots a billion dollars to adapt a poem about a guy who wears a suit made of diamonds. They spend the money on real diamonds and a Johnny Depp impersonator. (He does look like Johnny Depp.)